14: Episode 14 – planning a vegetable garden

What sort of things go in to planning a vegetable garden? Here I discuss things like wind exposure and crop rotation.

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Planning a Vegetable Garden

Today, we’re going to talk about planning your vegetable garden. When it comes to planning my vegetable garden, it’s one of the jobs I actually really look forward to – I get quite excited. I personally do it on a Word document and plan it all out. I’ve basically drawn out a map of my vegetable garden that I printed out and I take with me, which I now keep in the polytunnel. You don’t have to go to that effort. It’s really as much or as little as you want it to be, but personally, I like to spend quite a lot of time planning what’s going where. I put quite a lot of different factors into my decisions. It doesn’t have to be as in-depth as I make it. I do it because I enjoy it, but there are quite a lot of factors to be considered if you do want to think about them. So I’m going to go through some of those.

Planning Around Your Soil Type

When it comes to planning your vegetable garden, particularly if it’s the first year and you currently don’t have a vegetable garden, then one of the things to think about is what sort of ground do you have? If you have a big garden, like we do here, then you might have more than one spot in which to choose. What sort of soil do you have? Have you got a loamy soil, or a sandy soil, or a clay soil?

These likely are going to be the same throughout your whole garden, but you might find that some areas are better than others, particularly if you’ve inherited a garden where one area was already worked, then you might find that area is more conducive to growing vegetables than a separate area. So, have a look at what sort of soil you have. If you have a choice of different areas, then you might opt to go for a loamy type of soil, if you’ve got that choice; most of us aren’t that lucky. Where we live, although we have quite a large area, it’s all clay.

So, if you have a loamy soil, what that means is that it looks almost like when you buy compost, it’s that lovely, black material that falls apart in your hands and it’s the sweet spot in the middle of the most common soil types. On one end of that common soil spectrum, you’d have your sandy soils, which do feel quite sandy and you can see that when you look at them. And on the other end, you have the clay soils, which clump together when you roll them in your hand. They each have different characteristics that you, as a grower, should be aware of. Sandy soil, as you might expect, drains quite fast, so you might find that you have to water it more frequently. But, you don’t get some of the issues that you do get with clay, because that fast draining soil is actually a benefit when you have quite a lot of rain and for a lot of plants that are going to enjoy having dryer feet. On the other end of the spectrum, you have clay, which is very clumpy and very hard to dig. The biggest issue with clay is that it will dry out quite quickly if you get prolonged dry periods. It’s going to dry and crack, and if you get very wet periods, it’s going to get very claggy and difficult to work.

Whatever type of ground you have, you’re going to want to at least consider using a mulch. The best way to increase the quality of almost any sort of soil is just to add organic matter, so compost. Hopefully you’re making your own compost that you can use, but you can also use well-rotted manure or the old bedding from your animals. All those things really increase the quality of your soil for growing.

Positioning Your Garden Bed

Once you’ve decided what sort of soil you have and where you’re going to put your vegetable bed, the next thing to consider is what position is it in? Is it going to get lots of sun? Is it a south-facing part of your garden? Is it a north-facing part of your garden? Is it particularly exposed to the wind? Whatever it is, with regards to how it’s exposed to the elements, then that might guide some of your other decisions about what you’re going to plant and maybe whereabouts on that plot you’re going to plant things.

There’s very little that can’t be grown, regardless of where in your garden your plot is, but you might change up the ratios slightly. So, if your plot doesn’t get a tremendous amount of sun, you might try to grow some more of the leafy green type vegetables and less of the nightshades, because those leafy greens are quite happy with partial shade, whereas the nightshades are really going to want as much sun as you can give them in most cases. Another thing, is it very very exposed to wind? Because if it is, you might need a windbreak. You could even use your pole beans as a windbreak. This is a great way of getting a dual purpose from your crop, which is something I’m very keen to do.

The final thing about positions is to think about the actual slope of the ground. You might have it undulating slightly and you’ll find that higher points obviously are going to dry out that little bit quicker than the lower points.

Knowing When to Start Planting

The last thing is, and this really is only if you have quite a large space, is it a frost pocket?
Is it quite exposed or is it fairly sheltered. Do you personally live in a frost pocket?
Do you live out in the country or are you in a town? Because this is going to affect your frost dates.

Which brings us on to the next thing to consider, which is when to plant. Again, this is predominantly going to be based on your climate. If you are in the UK or in America or anywhere else, you will have access to some kind of zoning system. Even though I’m not an American, I’m familiar with the USDA zoning system and I imagine most people are, that’s why I mention it. Here in the UK, we have our own, so familiarize yourself with that and work out what zone you’re in. That’s going to dictate to some degree when you should plant certain crops, but it’s also going to dictate which crops are going to do well where you are. That’s an important part of planning your garden.

Working Out What to Plant

The next step is to go through everything I went through in the “Which Plants” article, and that is to work out what your family wants to eat. What are you going to be able to grow? What do you want to grow? Get together your list of actual plants that you’re going to choose to put in your plot, bearing in mind all those other considerations that we’ve just spoken about.

The next thing is to plan your rotations, after you’ve gone through all those other steps. This is where it does start getting fun. What you’re faced with, if you’re doing it the way I do with a physical piece of paper, which I’m ultimately going to print out, but ultimately what you’re going to have is this blank canvas on one hand and a list of crops on the other hand. This is where you start getting to add the color to your color-by-numbers book – it’s the exciting bit. I try and plan my rotations quite simply. I’ve separated my vegetable plot into four equal sizes and I have my crop rotation working so that basically everything this year in bed number one will be planted next year in bed number two, then number three, then number four, and everything that was in bed number four for this year will go into bed number one. That’s how I have my rotation all planned out.

What you’ll find is there are lots of different types of plants and you’ll want to make your own categories that work for you. But for instance, legumes are a very certain type of plant.
I keep them all in their own bed because they have very specific nutritional effects on the soil.
After the legumes, this year I’ll be planting nutrition-hungry plants like sweet corn
and things like that in the same bed, because those legumes actually add the right type of nutrients for the sweet corn to follow on after. I’ll do an entire article on crop rotation in the next few days, but it’s something for you to look into and certainly I include it as part of my planning and I recommend you do the same.

How To Maximize Your Cropping

The next thing to think about, when you have a rough idea of what’s going where, then you want to start thinking about how you can maximize your cropping from the space you have by doing things such as double cropping. For instance, you might have some early peas that you’re going to put in and they’re going to be producing all through the early summer, up to the middle of summer and then they’re probably going to fall away, at which point they may well leave room for a second crop in that same place. These are all things that you can be planning at this stage. It’s worth taking a note.

You have everything written down on paper, where you think everything’s going to go, now look at the actual specific varieties that you have and work out, “Okay, so this is going to go through until late August; that’s going to leave me a gap for x” and then you can come up with what x might be. There are quite a lot of quick-growing plants that will give you a second crop.

The next thing to bear in mind is succession planting. In our first year here, we planted a beautiful big row of lettuce and, like an absolute idiot who didn’t think about anything, I planted them all on the same day. Of course, they were all ready at the same time and I’m talking probably 20 or 30 lettuce. Lettuce is one of the crops that you’re really going to struggle to preserve, so for all the crops like lettuce, you’re going to want to be succession planting. What that means is, if you think that your family might want two lettuce a week, then you might plant the lettuce in batches of six. Then you plant six lettuce every three weeks so that, as they come to fruition, you can crop them and then there’s a steady succession of lettuce for the foreseeable weeks and months as you go.

The Benefits of Crop Rotation

Those are the basics and a few not-so-basics of how I planned my original vegetable garden, what I’ve learned from that and how I plan it now every year. There’s lots and lots of information out there and, for me, it’s one of the funnest parts of the downtime that we get in the winter, is planning what’s going to go where next year, and I might decide I’m going to try out a few exciting, different varieties or unusual plants that I haven’t tried before

I just want to very quickly talk about why we rotate the crops and it’s basically for two reasons. The first is, as I’ve already mentioned, different crops have different effects on the nutritional values of the soil. Some crops are what we might call mining crops. They’ll mine minerals from very low down with taproots, very deep roots, and they might bring some of those minerals up to the surface and deposit them in the soil, which is great – we really want that to happen. I make sure that my crops are doing that, it might be comfrey or something of that nature.

The other reason is a buildup of pests. Over time, pests that like a certain crop will feast on your crop during the growing season and then throughout the winter. By planting the same crop there the next year, what you’re doing is you’re basically making sure they’ve got the perfect environment to come back to and expand their numbers. By rotating crops, you very much deal with a lot of those issues.

So, there you go. That’s my thoughts on how to plan a vegetable garden. I hope you’ve found it interesting.